Thursday, 13 August 2009

He cracked

By the mid-seventies, David Bowie found himself comfortably in the firmament of the fucked up famous, a parallel universe where every thing you say with a smile is hilariously funny, every serious statement incredibly profound, every petulant request perfectly reasonable, every outrageous excess an excellent idea: marvellous for the ego, disastrous for the soul.

'Cracked Actor' is a classic BBC documentary that follows a skeletal and spaced out Bowie as he travels across America on his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. Knowing that Mr. Bowie lives, a prosperous and happy gentleman, is sufficient reason to find his rambling, incredibly pretentious interview segments amusing, but if we do laugh it's uneasily, scared slightly by the sight of a pale stick figure man staggering uncontrollably at the edge of a great drop.

There are many indelible moments: the waxworks in the desert, the fly in the carton of milk, his protracted explanation of the cut up method he employs to write his lyrics, his bizarre and inconsistent accent, his trousers.

Most incredibly, the concerts he performs in the midst of this obvious mental and physical low ebb look amazing, with Bowie in great form, owning the stage and climbing scaffolding with an alacrity that completely belies his fragile condition.

Unfortunately, the ensuing concert album 'David Live' sounds anemic and flat when deprived of Bowie's visual presence and charisma, which is another reason to be grateful for 'Cracked Actor', that and a glimpse into the mobile hell of a rock star at their height of their fame, the top of their game, and in the depths of despair.

A nice, grainy extract for you here courtesy of someone with a better grasp of technology than me. An eight minute trip into coked paranoia punctuated by really great music from one of rock's great geniuses.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Daft Cow

As a fervent fan of the psychedelic Pink Floyd, for a long while I viewed the band’s post-Barrett recordings as worthless, the work of a group where all the talent had been removed and all that was left was the desire not to get a real job. Over time, however, I have come to appreciate their struggle to remain afloat, and have developed a sneaking interest in the series of uneven LP’s they made between Barrett’s departure and their eventual transformation into the rock monolith they would become after the release of ‘Dark Side of The Moon' .

‘Atom Heart Mother’, their fifth LP, was released in 1970. Completely representative of the group’s issues at the time, half of the record is dull and directionless, featuring a second division solo work from each member rather than a unified band approach. The other half, however, is a very different matter. A twenty three minute suite for group, orchestra and chorus, the title track is strident, pompous, experimental, wildly ambitious and a great listen.

Masterminded by wayward composer, arranger, performance artist and Floyd associate Ron Geesin, the suite had its roots in a noodling guitar part that David Gilmour couldn’t crowbar into a song. Geesin, who already had several unusual, experimental and often very amusing albums to his credit, was brought in with a brief to turn the oddment into something the material starved group could record. Given the run of Abbey Road, Geesin responded with an elaborate score for a cast of hundreds split into six ‘movements’ and recorded as one long, fluid piece that was far beyond the capabilities of the group at that time: part classical, part prog, part overblown rock opera, a fascinating piece that sounds like a David Axelrod production of the best bits of the postwar British classical scene. Gilmour, Waters, Mason and Wright shuffle about in the background, providing a prosaic blues jam and a wonky rhythm track, but any doubt that Geesin is in charge is finally removed when the track moves into a four minute section for electronics and sound effects that is pure Geesin and could have sat quite happily on any of his interesting solo LP’s.

More than happy to tour the piece with a full orchestra on a money losing tour in the early seventies, Gilmour and the ever charming Roger Waters now regularly deride ‘Atom Heart Mother’ as ‘crap'
, although their sneering dismissal may well be due to the fact that they actually had very little to do with one of the better moments in their dreary back catalogue. Anyway, what do they know? They’re the tosspots that sacked Syd Barrett.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Funky Phantom

A few months ago I made an hour long mix of cosmic jazz music for the VG+ site: a selection of beeps, bleeps and brass plucked from the ether and entitled ‘Phantom Signals’ after the former British Army Regiment and the electrical phenomenon of the same name.

As a keen recycler, and ardent believer in the importance of music that just sort of ‘floats about’, I present it for your aural approval here. Let me know what you think. Track listing in comments.

The gentleman to your left is Vladimir Gavreau, the French Russian scientist who made himself and his team of researchers very ill indeed by experimenting with extreme frequencies in order to create sonic weapons. To his right is an infrasound device that would probably make you shit yourself.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


We’ve looked at the oeuvre of director Robert Hartford-Davis before (here) when I called him, amongst other things, a sleaze meister. ‘Corruption’ (1968) is the film in which Hartford-Davis falls into the muck and mire again but, this time, as he stumbles, clutches at the sleeve of Peter Cushing and dumps him in the shit as well.

Cushing plays Sir John Rowan, a brilliant and eminent surgeon: dedicated, hard-working, precise, correct at all times. Well, not quite all the time, as crafty Sir John has a dolly bird girlfriend and a wardrobe full of natty neckerchiefs to show that’s he’s not quite the cube we thought he was. It’s actually quite shocking to see the fifty five year old Peter Cushing ardently pressing his dessicated lips against his much younger love interest Lyn (Sue Lloyd) and pestering her for car sex, but it gets a lot worse and doesn’t get any better.

Lyn is fond of Sir John but sees him as a safe bet: he’ll provide security and status whilst she continues her groovy model lifestyle. Unfortunately, Sir John gets into a jealous rage at a swinging party and, during a violent tussle with Anthony Booth (who wouldn’t want to smack him?) a halogen lamp falls onto Lyn and before you can say ‘does anyone smell bacon?’ her pretty face and fabulous career are ruined.

Sir John isn’t the sort of man to let a little setback like a sizzled face put him off, however, and spurred on by an increasingly unhinged Lyn he packs in his job and takes to experimenting with pituitary glands to effect tissue regeneration. At first he is successful with the glands from dead women but the rejuvenating effects are temporary and it is with horror that he realises he must kill to get the living tissue required for a long term solution…

And kill he does. In a prostitute’s parlour, in a train carriage, on a beach as the tide comes in. In fact, he can’t stop killing and we are presented with the dismal spectacle of the usually immaculate Cushing, his eyes darting guiltily from side to side, sweating and slashing and descending into hell. It’s actually pretty unpleasant.

The film ends almost on a non-sequiter as a sinister group of hippies (including a gurning David Lodge with stick on sideburns) break into Sir John and Lyn’s holiday home and proceed to terrorise them in scenes that seem taken from another film entirely but, deus ex machina like, swiftly navigate the narrative to a violent end as, yes, there’s a laser scalpel in the spare room that goes out of control and everybody, yes, everybody, is sliced, diced and left a smouldering corpse. The End.

Cushing tries his best here but, ultimately, just like Sir John, all his huffing, puffing and utter degradation just leads to a humiliating loss of face. Hartford-Davis didn’t know any better, of course, and watching this and the films he made later in his career, it becomes apparent that he didn’t want to know any better. Billed as a film to which women would not be admitted unless accompanied by a man, even the promotional campaign is vintage Hartford-Davis: it’s crass, sensational, misogynistic and it doesn’t make any sense…anyway, for those of you that want to see Peter Cushing demonstrating why British Rail abolished closed train carriages, here’s the trailer...

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


When gawky 18 year old Marion Elliot saw The Sex Pistols play in 1976 she was immediately inspired by their example to make some music of her own. Whereas many people seemingly got into Punk simply to spike up their hair and stick up two fingers, young Marion had a message, a mission: a crusade against consumerism and materialism that would ultimately lead her to renounce all her worldly goods and leave the music world behind.

As newly christened Poly Styrene, Marion and her band X Ray Spex exploded onto the punk scene in an extraordinary burst of kinetic energy. Whereas most punk bands were laddish and aggressive, X Ray Spex were led by a smiling teenage girl, with an even younger girl (16 year old Lora Logic) on the squawking saxophone that further marked them out from their contemporaries.

Their songs were not, perhaps, thoughtful and considered (they were too fast and loud for that), but were often deceptively subtle with a feminist or political aspect that went way beyond smashing the system. In actual fact, the band were almost unique in the first wave of punk in that they were not averse to dressing up, surprisingly proficient and occasionally ambitious in their playing and seemed to be the sum of a jumble of non-contemporary influences, encompassing pop art, science fiction, b-movies, advertising jingles and bubblegum pop.

Somewhat slow to get into the studio, X Ray Spex didn’t release their debut LP until 1978, but it was well worth the wait. ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ is an amazing mix of punk, pop and art rock that places the listener on the sticky surface of a dayglo world where genetic engineering is rife, exploitative relationships the norm, and bored teenagers find hypnotic solace from detergent clogged swimming pools and plastic burger buns by brushing their teeth the SR way. A sort of ‘Brave New World’ as rewritten by J.G Ballard and painted by Max Ernst, the album is quite brilliant and possesses a depth of imagination and uniform vision that outstrips all other first wave UK punk LP’s, including the ones that everyone wets their slacks over and regularly appear at the top of lists.

Sadly, Poly left the band after a punishing tour to promote the album, later shaving her head, joining the Hare Krishnas and leaving capitalism and consumerism behind.

The band subsequently reformed several times in the last thirty years (with and without Poly) and have even recorded new material, but the best examples of their work remain the tracks on their great debut. Please find attached the cool, blank title track (one of the first singles I ever bought), sinister nursery rhyme ‘I Live Off You’ and storming pop art blast ‘The Day The World Turned Day Glo’ with its vivid imagery and grinding guitar riff.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Pioneer Corps

Tristram Cary first started to think about the possibilities of combining musical composition and electronics during long shifts as a Royal Navy radar operator in the Second World War. On his demobilisation in 1946, Cary spent his demob stipend on a disc cutting lathe and all his other spare time and money in buying, begging, borrowing and scavenging valves and oscillators to create a device that would help him fulfill his ambition to create electronic music. Completely hand-built, ‘the machine’ (it was never given a formal name) was a wonder of Heath Robinson technology, and was the first of its type in Britain, and one of the first in the world (France and Germany had similar machines, but each country genuinely thought their machine unique).

Cary’s experiments soon attracted the attention of the BBC, and he began working for them in the late fifties. Never purely avant garde, Cary was equally adept at more conventional orchestral and choral works, and this was demonstrated by the sheer volume of variety of his work over fifty years. While at the BBC he worked with the nascent Radiophonic Workshop, scoring the earliest episodes of ‘Dr. Who’, including providing eerie musique concrete for the first Dalek story in 1963.

In 1967, Cary provided an experimental tape loop sound environment for use in the Worlds Fair / Expo (these events were extremely important in the development and promotion of electronic music throughout the sixties and seventies) as well as providing electronic buzzes and bleeps for psych-lite spy thriller ‘Sebastian’ and an intense score for my favourite Hammer film, the superb ‘Quatermass & The Pit’.

After working to create the seminal EMS Synthesiser and Synthi (a portable version), Cary relocated to Australia in 1974 to teach at the University of Adelaide, and was still teaching and composing right up until his death in 2005 at the age of 82.

From the Tristram Cary archives we present 'The Swamp' from 'Dr Who & The Daleks' circa 1963, an edited, but still powerful 'Apocalypse' from 'Quatermass & The Pit', and the wittily titled 'Cue 38' from ‘Dr Who & The Mutants’ in 1972. Smashing stuff.